IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Am A Grown Man With An Eating Disorder
I'm Adam. I am a 33-year-old man and I have an eating disorder (ED). That's right, a grown man with an eating disorder.
I'm not alone either; according to a recent study by Boston’s Children’s Hospital, the number of men diagnosed with eating disorders is skyrocketing. Eating disorders are also not just a young person’s problem, something you grow out of when you get older and "wiser." I don’t look like an emaciated famine victim or a young, white fashionista. Yet I have carried this demon inside of me for as long as I can remember.
Like many people with EDs, I was really good at masking my behaviors. However, the reality is that most likely, if I were female, my eating disorder would have been recognized far earlier. Even mental health professionals still view EDs as a "female problem."
When someone finally recognized my ED, I searched high and low for people whose struggles I could relate to. In my search, I found next to nothing written by or for a man. Eating disorders are disorders based in shame, and as a man I felt a whole additional level of shame. As a guy, I felt left out of the conversation, a fluke.
I graduated from high school in 1998 and was morbidly obese. My last year of high school was especially rough. I was having severe panic attacks and fell into a deep depression.
While friends where planning their next big adventure, I was just trying to get through each day. Most days I could not get out of my car to attend classes. I was maintaining a web of lies to keep people in the dark. Everything came crashing down when I found out that I had missed too much school to be able to graduate with my class.
During this time in my life, I was easily eating over 4,000 calories a day. I would eat to the point where I would be in extreme physical pain.
For the next three years I floated through life. During this time, I worked a retail job I hated, was coming to terms with my sexuality and continuing to use food as the only element of control in my life. At my highest weight, I came in at around 450 pounds.
When I turned 21, I decided it was time to get my life back in gear. I quit my job; I went back to school and did something that changed my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I had Gastric Bypass surgery.
In 2001, when I had the surgery, it was still relatively uncommon. The surgery is, of course, still controversial today, but at that point there were no support systems built into surgical weight loss programs. I went to a total of five doctor appointments, two before and three after.
However, even back then, if I had received an ED diagnosis, no doctor would have performed the surgery without me having to go through a major treatment program. After the surgery, I tried to eat like I did before. I would just be miserable and in pain, throwing up. After a couple weeks of trying this, I started to lose weight and get positive feedback. My ED went from compulsive overeating to complete restriction. The more positive feedback I got, the less I ate.
By the time 2002 rolled around, I was down to about 140 lbs. To put this in perspective, I am 6’4’’ and 190lbs is considered to be on the low side of a "healthy weight.” Because I wasn’t eating, I had no nutrition in my body. During this time I went to at least one doctor appointment a week to figure out why I was so dangerously thin. Never was an eating disorder part of the conversation. In February, I was admitted to the hospital with a common infection in my lung. From there it was all downhill.
Normally the body would have no problem fighting the infection, but due to my restricting and lack of nourishment the worst-case scenario happened. The infection spread to my other lung, I got a drug resistant staph infection and before long, both infections spread to my blood. I had to be put in a medically induced coma; my body was paralyzed and fed through a tube into my stomach. The doctors twice told my parents I was not going to survive the night.
This is not the point in the article where you find out I am writing from the great beyond. I survived, but just barely. I had to re-learn how to walk and speak. I have permanent nerve damage in my legs, which means I’ll be in pain for the rest of my life. One would think that would be enough to keep me eating, but one would be wrong.
I left the hospital with the tube still going into my stomach to supplement my eating. The ED was so ingrained in my brain that I would actually pour out the tube feeding.
About nine months later, I suffered a relapse and was readmitted to the hospital. Every bit of nutrition that had been built up during the last hospital stay was gone. After leaving the hospital, I went into treatment, not for an eating disorder, but for extreme post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Still, an eating disorder was never discussed.
I was in my PTSD program for 90 days. In seeking treatment for the PTSD, I was able to unconsciously use many of the tools to get my ED under control for a long period of time.
For the next eight or nine years, I was able to manage my eating. In times of high stress, deep sadness or extreme anxiety, the old behaviors would still show up. My dad passed away in my mid-twenties and during that time all the old destructive behaviors came back. Luckily I was able to get myself back in line fairly quickly.
I was 31 when a series of small, but significant, negative events occurred. It came back slowly, but the eating disorder was in control again. During this time I went back and forth between compulsive overeating to not eating for days. I tried everything in my power to pull myself out of the hole I was in. Well, everything except acknowledging my ED.
As a last ditch, "Hail Mary" play; I moved. I figured I would get to a new city and be able to start fresh. My grand re-launch plan failed miserably. I only got more isolated and depressed. I finally reached a point where I went to bed thinking it would not be the worst thing ever if I did not wake up. I knew it was time to get help.
I came home and entered a program to treat my depression. While I was in the program, one of my counselors pulled me aside and asked me if I had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. My immediate thought was, "But I’m a guy!"
It took a little convincing but I transferred into an outpatient eating disorder program. I was the only man in the program and I don’t just mean patients. Every doctor, nurse and counselor was female. It was difficult enough accepting that I had an eating disorder but now I was in this program where there was no one I could relate to.
While many things are universal, I still felt isolated. As I mentioned before, EDs are disorders of shame and not seeing anyone that shared my chromosomes only compounded the problem. When I tried to find "someone like me" -- nothing. I was still not ready to face this particular demon. I did everything I could to sabotage this program, leaving after a month.
After a long period of soul searching, I entered an inpatient treatment in August of 2013. I was finally ready to tackle this demon. To say that those two weeks changed my life is an understatement. This time, I was one of four men in the program. This validated to me that men really can develop eating disorders and that I was not alone.
The program had amazing counselors who showed me my destructive behaviors and how far back they really went. The time I spent here helped me put so much in perspective and understand the patterns of my behavior.
For me, the hardest part is that there are no black and white answers. There is never going to be a moment when I am "recovered." In the program we talked about the desire to have a graduation ceremony where we all get certificates and are finally healed. Unfortunately recovery is journey, not a destination.
While I do not believe you have to live in your ED for the rest of your life, I know you have to be vigilant. The best metaphor I have ever heard is that it is like cancer. The cancer can go into remission; however, you still have to watch carefully. Eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rates. They are also one of the most overlooked.
In the end, by sharing my story, I hope that men (and women) fighting eating disorders might find someone they can identify with. Just because you do not fit the movie of the week version of eating disorders, it doesn’t mean that your ED is not real and not serious. Just keep strong and stay vigilant. Let’s also remember that men also need and deserve a place in this conversation.